Ghanian-British actress Adjoa Andoh who has challenged stereotypes all her working life, has created theatre history by co-directing and acting in the first major play in which all cast and crew are women of colour. In this exclusive interview, she tells Belinda Otas, why her production of Shakespeare’s Richard ll* is told with an all women of colour ensemble at a time when the UK faces up to the reality of Brexit and people are grappling with questions about identity and nationhood.
Shakespeare’s Richard 11, co-directed by Adjoa Andoh Lynette Linton and starring Andoh in the title role, opened at the Globe theatre to rave reviews by critics: ‘Andoh brings an extraordinary expressive range to Richard. She is, by turns, imperious, skittish, calculating, impulsive’ writes The Guardian’s Michael Billington. ‘She is a gloriously formidable actor: strong vocally, physically, emotionally, intellectually’ wrote Ian Shuttleworth in the Financial Times.
Adjoa Andoh, a Ghanian-British actress is probably the most versatile actress working in UK stage, film and television at the moment. She has played leading roles at some of the most iconic theatres in the country – such as Royal Shakespeare Company, the National Theatre, the Royal Court Theatre and the Almeida as well as in many other stage productions.
She has also appeared in scores of television productions, including long-running series such as Doctor Who, Casualty and EastEnders.
She made her Hollywood debut as Mandela’s Chief of Staff, Brenda Mazibuko in Clint Eastwood’s 2009 production of Invictus and also appeared in several other films.
She also has a huge range of voice performances, including the No 1 Ladies Detective Agency set in Botswana and scores of audio books, including Maya Angelou’s I know Why the Caged Bird Sings and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half a Yellow Sun.
What a time to be, given all the global upheavals – from Donald Trump in the White House to Brexit – and here you are, a woman of British-Ghanaian heritage co-directing and acting in Richard II. Why pick William Shakespeare’s play?
I feel there’s something about this play relevant to this moment. In the UK, we are talking Brexit, we are talking the Windrush scandal and we are talking Grenfell (The London tower block that caught fire in 2017, and over 70 lives were lost.) Globally, we have Yemen, Venezuela and Donald Trump.
What all of this feels like is a huge moment of fracturing in the world and our public discourse. We also have #BlackLivesMatter, #MeToo – you name it.
There’s a line in the play where Bolingbroke (a character in the play) is being treasonous and the character I play, Richard II says, “The cloak of night being plucked from off their backs.”
It’s as if you thought you were getting away with it and then bam (claps her hands) off it comes and your sin is exposed in the daylight. That’s the language of the play.
What’s brilliant about Shakespeare is that in any play of his, there’s always something which reflects what is happening in the contemporary world and is completely on point at any moment. That’s why I love him so much.
I have just been made an associate at the RSC (Royal Shakespeare Company) and for me, Shakespeare is the great humanitarian playwright ever.
I also just finished doing a movie about Nelson Mandela in South Africa. When Mandela and fellow political detainees were on Robben Island, they had the complete works of Shakespeare smuggled in under the cover of a Hindu prayer book.
They did so because the plays encouraged them, gave them courage and made them reflect on their situations. They used to pass the volume round and they would read it and underline their favourite bits.
I think Shakespeare was a person who wrote from the heartbeat, and had a great love of humanity. I think those people in that dire situation on Robben Island understood that love and that wisdom, and they found it of great comfort and a great encouragement. That’s how I feel about Shakespeare, endlessly comforting.
This particular production comes with a twist too. The ensemble and company of both creative and production teams are all women of colour. What has that journey entailed for you
I went to Michelle Terry, who runs the Globe Theatre in London – which is a replica of the original theatre where most of Shakespeare’s plays were performed – about a different project that didn’t work out but she asked me if I would be interested in directing Richard II.
It was not a play that I knew particularly well, so I said I would go and read it, which I did. I came back and I was very excited about it.
This is a great play about England. Shakespeare describes it as ‘This royal throne of kings, this sceptred isle,’ and ‘This precious stone set in a silver sea’ he also tells the story of the first king in this country to be deposed in office.
Richard II wasn’t beheaded, he wasn’t killed in battle and he didn’t die of known natural causes. He was removed by the Commons. I said to Michelle that I was very interested in doing the play because it would come at a time when it feels that the whole of England is in a tumult of conversation about what this nation is. What’s the identity of this nation? Who has the right to call themselves part of this nation and who doesn’t have a right; who owns the flag and who built this nation? Who contributed to its wealth and prosperity?
I just thought – Empire! This country would not have existed industrially, architecturally, in commerce or trade to anything like the degree it has and flourished as it did; it would not have fuelled the industrial revolution or science or any of the other areas where Britain has been marvellous, without the bodies, wealth and prosperity and natural resources that came from the countries it conquered, colonised and made part of the Empire.
Our ancestors talk about England as the ‘Mother Country’ but then they are not allowed to have ownership of that country! So I decided that the children of that Empire – women, children, people of colour who are at the bottom of the heap of Empire – will tell the story of England as contributors to the wealth and prosperity of this nation.
I felt this is an important moment to be saying this, especially at a time when people stop you on the streets and tell you to ‘go back to where you came from’ – combined with the Windrush scandal.
I decided the entire cast and crew would all be women of colour. Michelle asked who was going to play Richard. I said ‘me’. She asked me if I was mad, wanting to direct and play Richard. I said yes. I would ask one of my best friends, a director, Lynette Linton, who I think is fabulous, to co-direct with me, so I don’t go completely bonkers.
Lynette recently directed this fabulous show, Sweat – by Lynn Nottage, the Pulitzer Prize winning African American playwright – at the Donmar Warehouse. It is transferring to the West End, and she is the new artistic director of The Bush Theatre.
I also wanted to acknowledge that we stand on the shoulders of the generations that came before us. We have actors straight out of drama school – a young actor called Nicole Cherry – right through to Dona Croll who has been acting for 40 years in this country because I wanted to say this is the breath of who we are.
Every person involved in making this work is a woman of colour: fight director, voice coach, composer, designer and musicians, stage management, even our publicist, Juanne, everybody is a woman of colour. Why? Because I wanted to say we are gifted to do this work and we are pretty good at it and I wanted that to be the basis on which the show happens.
You have Ghanaian and British heritage, and have brought that dual lens of perspective to this work. What is the burden of the responsibility that comes with that, especially when we put it in the context of theatre still being a white male dominated world?
I’m blessed, I’m blessed with it. It’s interesting because I have been in this business since 1983, so that’s quite a long time. There have been slow shifts but it’s still White male dominated and power does not give up power. You have to take it, you have to demand it and you have to make the space.
I wanted to ring-fence a space so that all these women of colour can come into it. And we have women of Empire, from West Africa, East Africa and the Caribbean through to South East Asia. It’s a broad range of artists.
I wanted to create a space where instead of feeling that you are always either the only person of colour in the or the only woman, you can come into a space where everybody is a woman of colour.
You don’t have to represent anybody in here. You just come and you do your work with that God-given talent that you were blessed with. So just come and breathe out for once.
Equally, our ancestors have been a really important part of all the cultures, and all those cultures have ancestor worship in them, as does the British traditional culture.
Go to Buckingham Palace, there will be portraits of Lord Blah of Blah, Blah, and Lady Ding, Ding of Dududa. So in our production, we have portraits of our grandmothers and our great-aunts and all the women of colour that came before us. It’s a message saying: because they did, we can and we do and others will.
This production is for all human beings and we are making a particular effort to say: if you have felt that it was not for the likes of you because you are not smart, posh or educated enough or any of that nonsense, that has nothing to do with your ability to engage in the story or empathise or be enraged by it.
I have a real bugbear about people thinking that Shakespeare is something exclusive – and he is not. He is a man and an artist who wrote on a heartbeat because he was interested in human beings.
I want to tell my audience that I’m much more interested in you than I’m in the season ticket holders of a theatre. I want those new audiences to come and get what they can as well. We are trying to make the offer in all ways – how we tell the story, how we showcase the work of artists and how we invite a new audience in to see this work.
You have played strong female characters, for example in Assata Taught Me by Kalungi Ssebandeke, and Leave Taking by Winsome Pinnock at The Bush Theatre. However, here you are taking on the role of a man. What do you envision in your interpretation of that role and why does taking on this character matter to you?
Over the last year, I have played the roles of men in three of Shakespeare’s plays. I played Casca, who is the first of the conspirators that killed Caesar in Julius Caesar; then I went to The Royal Shakespeare Company and played Ulysses (Odysseus) in Troilus and Cressida – a huge part and now I’m playing Richard II. For all of them, I didn’t even think about whether it’s a man or a woman I was portraying.
I just thought about the person. One of the things I think reduces who we are as human beings are the value judgements that are placed on what I call this ‘fleshy overcoat’, which is your genitalia and melanin. Not interested, don’t care.
Who are you as a human being? What do you need? What are you frightened by? What do you desire? What are your ambitions? What are your fears? What are you gifted with? That’s what I’m interested in. And I say that really selfishly because that’s how I would like somebody to view me.
Like me, don’t like me, value me or don’t value me for what you learn of my character, not because you see breasts and a brown face. I have said to everybody: just come and play the person. Think about what they need whatever the narrative is, This way you open up the story to everybody to watch it and that’s what I’m interested in.
That’s how I would like to live my life. I’m bored of having to say ‘I’m a Black woman, can you do this for me?’ or ‘I’m a Black woman and you won’t let me do that.’ I just would like to be an artist, do my work and campaign for a world of love, equality and decency through the things I’m gifted with, which are arty things.
Have you encountered any resistance?
Everybody is resistant to new ideas. There has never been an all women of colour ensemble doing Shakespeare on a major UK stage before. Some people were excited by it and some people were outraged.
We have had hostile stuff on Twitter and we have had a huge amount of really exciting and thrilled responses as well. At the end of the day, we have to do a good show, and then people can either love the show or not but that’s their business.
And if they want to hate the show because of who is in it, then that’s also their baggage and I can’t do anything about that. But we can make the offer, and the offer is if you think you hate the idea of this or love the idea of it, you are welcome and everybody is welcome.
You and Lynette are in decision-making roles in bringing this to fruition. Here you are, two women who have dual heritage, disrupting the status quo. What does that feel like and how fulfilling or how interesting is it to be a disruptor at this time?
I don’t call it disruption. I call it living my life. If the status quo doesn’t include me, what am I supposed to do? Crawl under a duvet and die? It’s not even as noble as being a disruptor.
It’s saying I want to work. I want to be a whole human being and if the status quo is not allowing me to do that, then the status quo needs moving because I’m not going to crawl under a duvet and die because I have a mortgage to pay.
I have three children and a husband and a dog. I must eat food and I must live and this is the way I earn my living and I want to have the scope to live and love my life as richly as I possibly can, and also say come on, let’s all do this.
I would also say what if you are a young White man and you have grown up where the only industry available to you is working in a car plant? Well, maybe you are made to work in a car plant and maybe you are not. Maybe you are supposed to be a baker or tailor or a flower arranger. This is a conversation for all of us.
This is about saying we need to be in a world where we are free to be who we are. We know that world doesn’t exist now but it doesn’t mean in our own little corner we can’t try to make it happen. Make that offer and suggestion to other people that maybe this is a different way of thinking about the world.
When I go home at night, I feel extremely happy at the moment. I feel extremely stressed and extremely exhausted but I made that choice. I had rather be stressed and exhausted by a happy choice I have made than one that’s being forced upon me and I don’t have any agency over.
To be in a room with all these wonderful women, to weep in this room because there is not a woman who is not here because at some point somebody from this country went somewhere overseas, colonised, raped, killed and pillaged some of our ancestors. And we all carry that trauma.
That isn’t even me being woolly. That is now a scientific proven fact – we carry the trauma in our DNA. So to be in a room with a bunch of women, who have somehow managed to scrabble through the world, through the generations and get to be artists, I want to celebrate that. I want to cry and laugh together with these women, and talk about aging parents and children, and periods and menopause and all that.
The richness of that heritage is really important to me and I feel really blessed and thrilled by them and their level of excellence as artists and their generous hearts as we all come together and we go: ‘come on let’s do the work’.
What does Richard 11 teach us about our humanity?
That nobody is born bad. I see a child who lost his father when he was three, and lost his grandfather when he was 10, and then was expected to be king. Where were his safe places? Who was guiding him? Who was raising him? Where did he go when he was scared?
What happens when you grow up in an insecure environment is that you have to force yourself forward to feel safe. You force yourself into a place where you are quite extreme about things – this is good and this is bad – because you are trying to do the job of a parent on yourself when you haven’t grown up yet.
My question would be – this child should not have been king. He is not fit to be king because he is not made for it. His cousin Bolingbroke however, is fit to be king. Which takes me back to the whole question of identity because I’m brown and because I’m female, am I fit to be lesser than somebody else?
Again we come back to this idea of what society forces you to be – like he is born into a hereditary dynasty, so therefore he must be the king. It’s about what you are built for as a human being and what your soul is built for.
What I love about this play and about Shakespeare is that he takes someone, who at the beginning of the play, you might think is reprehensible but by the end of the play when he has lost everything that the world values; status, wealth and power, you find a valuable human being who understands his value is in himself not in his stuff.
What are the conversations that you at least hope people will have as a result of this production?
That’s what is so exciting. It is unpredictable. But I hope that people will see the story afresh. I hope it might make them reflect on nationhood and who we are as a nation. I hope it might make them marvel at the breath and range of talent that there is among artists in this country.
I hope that some of the truths, which I think and believe in, are in the play: truths about the frailty of humanity, generosity, love, fear. And also about what is the value of power, and civil disruption that is happening in the discourse of this country at the moment.
I hope it may reflect on all of those things. But what I think a good play does is that you come to it with your own baggage, and then you resonate with who knows what during the production. And I hope you leave enriched in some way that will help lighten the burden of your life in some way.
*Richard II runs at The Globe Theatre, London until 21 April 2019 is co-directed by Adjoa Andoh and Lynette Linton both pictured below. Photo by Ingrid Pollard